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What Does ‘Woke’ Even Mean? How A Decades-Old Racial Justice Term Became Co-Opted By Politics

What Does ‘Woke’ Even Mean? How A Decades-Old Racial Justice Term Became Co-Opted By Politics
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Topline

“Woke” is now best known as a negative political buzzword used to describe anything deemed too liberal or progressive—like brands that support Pride Month, The Little Mermaid live-action film and teaching about race in schools—but the word has a long history, originally meaning to be aware of racially motivated threats.

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Key Facts

Conservatives, including media pundits and Republican presidential candidates, have blasted a continually growing list of companies as “woke” in recent weeks, mostly for their outreach to the LGBTQ community.

Conservative definitions for “woke” range from “a form of cultural Marxism,” according to Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, to “a virus more dangerous than any pandemic,” according to former Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.).

Before the word was co-opted by the right wing, “woke” was a word used within Black communities and social justice campaigns to refer to an awareness of inequality, with some urging others to “stay woke”—and picked up mainstream popularity as the Black Lives Matter movement grew in the early 2010s, particularly after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Black activists and academics have also criticized white liberals for co-opting “woke” and using it in a performative way to appear progressive, as well as using it to refer to any left-leaning position, diluting its original meaning.

The use of “woke” as a pejorative has extended beyond just the United States: Politicians in countries including Hungary, Switzerland and New Zealand have slammed “woke ideology” in recent months.

The conservative redefinition of “woke” has made the term more popular than ever: Google searches for “woke” hit an all-time high as of March 2023, according to Google Trends.

News Peg

The word “woke” has taken center stage on the 2024 campaign trail as Republican candidates use the term as a pejorative to describe everything from LGBTQ-friendly businesses to teaching about race in schools. But former President Donald Trump said at a campaign stop in Des Moines last week he doesn’t like the word “woke” because “half the people can’t even define it”—though he used the term while attacking DeSantis just two days prior for failing to stop Disney from going “woke.” When asked what the term means by NBC correspondent Dasha Burns on Saturday, DeSantis defined “woke” as “putting merit and achievement behind identity politics, and it’s basically a war on the truth.” Haley, also asked to define the term by CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday, defined it as “a lot of things”—including “biological boys playing in girl sports” and “gender pronoun classes in the military.”

Key Background

Early versions of “stay woke” have been used as early as 100 years ago. In 1923, as part of a compilation of philosophical ideas written by Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, he declared: “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” as a call for Black liberation. “Stay woke” was spoken in the outro of a 1938 song, “Scottsboro Boys” by Lead Belly, based on the 1931 Alabama case in which nine Black teenagers were accused of raping two white women. Lead Belly urges listeners to “stay woke, keep their eyes open” at the conclusion of the song. The Oxford English Dictionary credits a 1962 New York Times article about how white Americans appropriate Black slang, “If You’re Woke You Dig It,” written by novelist William Melvin Kelley, as the first citation using the word “woke.” “Woke” has been further popularized by modern singers, including Erykah Badu, whose 2008 song “Master Teacher” contains the refrain, “I stay woke,” as well as Childish Gambino’s 2016 song “Redbone,” which includes “stay woke” in the chorus.

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Surprising Fact

University of California at Santa Barbara, linguistics scholar deandre a. miles-hercules told CNN conservatives using “woke” however they want, despite its historical meaning, is an example of “semantic pejoration”: when a word gains a negative meaning over time. The same happened to identity politics, miles-hercules said, which was used as far back as 1977 to describe ending oppression against Black women but is also now used as a pejorative by conservatives.

Chief Critics

Some on the left and right have criticized the negative use of the word “woke.” In September, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) criticized the “woke right” as people who want to “just scream at the other side.” Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, told ABC News conservatives use the term as a dog whistle: “It’s been a useful club for those who want to beat those seeking justice over the head with white grievance politics to win elections without deploying explicitly racist terms.” Candis Watts Smith, associate professor of political science at Duke University and coauthor of Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter, told the Washington Post co-opting and weaponizing language is standard practice of undermining social movements, and in this case, a Black political movement.

Tangent

Use of the term has ramped up in recent weeks as companies have come under fire for marketing toward the LGBTQ community and celebrating Pride Month. Bud Light sparked sputtering outrage among conservatives after it sent transgender TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney a customized can with her face on it, though the can was not commercially available. Mulvaney posted a video with the can and quickly attracted criticism from high-profile celebrities and pundits, including Kid Rock, Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro. Conservatives have since jumped on the momentum to boycott other “woke” companies, including Nike, which also partnered with Mulvaney. Adidas and Target came under fire for trans-inclusive clothing, with Target’s boycott aided by viral misinformation that a tuck-friendly swimsuit was sold in children’s sizes, when it was only made for adults. The North Face and Jack Daniels faced criticism for using drag queens, who have recently been targets of legislation threatening to restrict where they can perform, in advertisements.

Further Reading

The New ‘Anti-Woke’ Crusade Targets DEI—And Chick-Fil-A? (Forbes)

Navy Removes Pride Month Posts Amid Right-Wing Backlash—Nascar, Major League Baseball Also Targeted (Forbes)

Kohl’s Becomes Latest Target Of LGBTQ Culture Wars: Here Are All The Others—From Bud Light To Target (Forbes)

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Molson Coors Slaps Anti-‘Woke’ Critics—Like Joe Rogan And Ben Shapiro—And Defends Miller Lite Women’s History Ad (Forbes)



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